Connecticut leaders fighting Trump's order on immigration

Local residents gather at the Soldiers and Sailors monument in New London in protest of President Trump's Executive Order regarding immigration on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017. About 100 participants took part in the peaceful event. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Local residents gather at the Soldiers and Sailors monument in New London in protest of President Trump's Executive Order regarding immigration on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017. About 100 participants took part in the peaceful event. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Days after President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily barring from the United States all refugees as well as citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, many local and statewide organizers are working to fight it.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, condemned the executive order on the House floor. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked whether the Justice Department is properly vetting Trump’s orders. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy unveiled legislation that would block Trump’s ban.

Attorney Michael T. Doyle, who oversees the Church of the City Immigration Advocacy & Support Center in New London, said he has been losing sleep as he figures out the next steps.

The order, which went into effect Friday, put into place an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, as well as a 120-day ban on other refugees. It also made it so all citizens of seven countries — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen — couldn’t enter the United States. Instantly, visitors and even people with green cards were detained at airports in the United States and abroad.

Doyle joined a rapid response team organized by the ACLU so he could offer services to those in limbo at Bradley International Airport who might need his help.

Doyle and his staffers also have made it known that any immigrants with questions can bring them to the advocacy and support center. And they’ve advised people from the seven specified nations to stay in the United States, even if they have green cards, which are held by permanent legal residents of the U.S.

Doyle is used to directly aiding immigrants, whether by helping them navigate visas and green cards, walking them through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or assisting them when they’re victims of crimes including domestic violence and human trafficking.

Now he and other center employees are working to join with other similar organizations “to convert our voice into political change.”

“We really feel that what we’re seeing is devastating to the fabric of our country,” Doyle said, adding that he doesn’t want to look back decades from now and wish he hadn’t been silent.

“We’ve got to speak loud and often,” he said. “We have to stand fast against each unconstitutional act, each violation of civil rights.”

Earlier this month, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 48 percent of voters supported suspending immigration from “terror prone” regions, even if that meant turning away refugees. Of the 48 percent, 72 percent identified as Republican. Forty-two percent of voters said they opposed such a measure.

Last month, a study carried out by Politico and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found something similar: 50 percent of U.S. citizens were in favor of “banning future immigration from regions with active terrorist groups.”

Norm Pattis, a defense attorney who has represented clients in several high-profile cases, said he is “conflicted” about the order. As a criminal defense attorney, he said, he is prepared to defend the rights of anyone whose rights may be being violated under the order.

“But as a voter,” he said, “I kind of like the idea.”

The order, he said, is in keeping with Trump’s message to voters that won him the election to put the interests of Americans, particularly the lower middle class, first. He said he is confident that courts will serve as a check on any excesses of the order.

“Is he taking a sledgehammer when a chisel would have done the job?” Pattis asked. “Perhaps. But the courts will sort that out. The courts are going to be where the action is. This is an exciting time to be a lawyer.”

Speaking to the Hartford Courant Sunday, Connecticut Republican Party Chairman JR Romano said the order wasn’t meant to be permanent and that “it’s about keeping Americans safe.”

But Mongi Dhaouadi, executive director of the Connecticut Chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, called it “devastating.”

“Some of the things they’re putting forward as facts are not really matching up with reality,” he said. “They’re saying they are trying to keep America safe from terrorists, but none of the countries listed on this executive order have ever had someone commit an attack on American soil. It’s baffling.”

Dhaouadi said CAIR still is working to gather information from families that have been affected in Connecticut. He said he knows of two students, one from Yale and the other from Wesleyan, who are stranded overseas. He also knows of a man originally from Syria who now is a citizen of Canada. After learning his story, CAIR advised him not to travel for work next week, as he originally had planned.

“Some are really afraid,” he said of the community with which he works. “What is the end game here? What is it that this administration wants to do, exactly?”

He said CAIR-Connecticut is organizing town hall forums across the state so families who want to come forward about how this is affecting them can do so safely.

Nationally, the group has filed a federal lawsuit that says Trump’s executive order is a step toward "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," which Trump suggested in December 2015.

Dhaouadi said he believes CAIR’s lawsuit, like others, has a good chance in the court system given that several judges already have blocked portions of Trump's order.

And he found solace in the more than 1,000 people who came to Bradley International Airport Sunday to protest Trump’s order and stand in solidarity with those who had been detained.

Still, he said the executive order helps create a divide between Muslims and other communities of faith.

“This furthers the notion in general that Muslims are not welcome in America,” Dhaouadi said. “By and large the American people are not buying it. But at the same time, there is a minority group that will feel emboldened; if the president can do this, then they can.”

Steve Kennedy, Connecticut team leader for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a U.S. Army infantryman who served in Iraq, said his safety and the safety of his unit depended on “the bravery and selfless sacrifice of the Iraqi interpreters who worked side by side with us.”

“Turning our backs on them when they need us most is shameful, discriminatory and contrary to the American ideals I fought overseas to protect,” Kennedy said in a statement sent over the weekend with other veterans’ groups opposing the ban.

Ron Ward, co-leader of The New London Area Refugee Settlement Team, said although he knew Trump’s ban was coming, he would have liked it if a few more immigrant families got to come to the city “before the door closed.”

“It’s frustrating knowing there are people in need who meet all the qualifications, were vetted and waiting to start their lives here in the U.S.,” Ward said. “Now they can’t.”

The New London Area Refugee Settlement Team, known as Start Fresh, has welcomed three families and 19 individuals from the Middle East to New London, helping them settle into homes and providing support as they seek employment, learn English and enroll their children in school. Two of the families are from Syria and the third is from Sudan.

Ward said it was the hope of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church to have at least one other family welcomed to a newly renovated church property on Jay Street.

Now, Ward said, his group will focus on meeting the needs of the about seven families already spread out in New London, Ledyard, East Lyme and Norwich. All of them faced months if not years of vetting.

Ward said he believes the United States should bear some of the burden in helping to resettle these families and is obliged to meet responsibilities outlined under the international refugee settlement agreement.

The Rev. Catriona Grant, pastor of the Ledyard Congregational Church, which sponsored a Syrian refugee family in Gales Ferry, said she was shocked by the news of the executive order. Volunteers from the church have been helping the Mahmoud family settle since May.

To discuss how they should respond to the ban, the church will host a meeting at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

“We're brainstorming things that we're going to do with our faith community: contacting our representatives, reaching out to our Muslim neighbors and in the Muslim community,” Grant said.

David and Sara Holdridge, members of the Ledyard Congregational Church who have coordinated the volunteer effort, said they were saddened by the order and were with the Mahmoud family when it went through.

David Holdridge said he knows many people who believe the measures were passed too quickly and without much thought about their ramifications.

“They say make it extreme vetting: it is extreme,” Sara Holdridge said, recalling that for the Mahmoud family it took two years of interviews and screening before they were admitted to the country. “I don't know how much better the vetting could get.”

A committee of volunteers from the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, St. Ann's Episcopal Church and Christ the King Church spent almost a year preparing to help resettle a family from Aleppo, Syria. That family arrived in May.

The Rev. Steven Jungkeit of the First Congregational Church said they recently made an offer on a house that could serve as a resettlement house for more refugee families in the future, as long as there is a need.

Jungkeit said the experience of helping resettle the Syrian family has been positive and educational. But more than that, he said "it's been a journey of the heart," in which people from a different part of the world, with different traditions, have become dear friends.

For many who know the Syrian family, it feels tragic and painful to hear that other families were selected to be welcomed into the United States, only to be told that they can't come, he said.

He recalled attending a birthday party in the fall for one of the children of the refugee family and seeing people from Lyme and Syria and other parts of the world gather in a circle to perform a Syrian dance in rural Lyme.

"It was this wonderful, utopian moment," he said. "I have the feeling that if everybody could experience a moment like that, we wouldn't be going through what we're going through now."

Day staff writers Greg Smith, Kimberly Drelich, Judy Benson and Nate Lynch contributed to this report.

l.boyle@theday.com

President Donald Trump takes the cap off a pen before signing executive order for immigration actions to build border wall during a visit to the Homeland Security Department in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Donald Trump takes the cap off a pen before signing executive order for immigration actions to build border wall during a visit to the Homeland Security Department in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
FILE - Attorney Michael Doyle participates in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Immigration Advocacy &Support Center located in the Church of the City in New London, Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014. (Tim Martin/The Day)
FILE - Attorney Michael Doyle participates in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Immigration Advocacy &Support Center located in the Church of the City in New London, Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014. (Tim Martin/The Day)
FILE - Mongi Dhaouadi addresses members of the local Muslim community following Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of New London Friday, March 2, 2012 in Groton.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
FILE - Mongi Dhaouadi addresses members of the local Muslim community following Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of New London Friday, March 2, 2012 in Groton. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
(Clockwise from lower right) Volunteer interpreter Yomen Arnaout, her sister, Zin Arnaout, and mother, Manar Faraj, all of Mystic, Syrian refugees Darin Hamou of Lyme and Fidan Mahmoud of Ledyard and volunteer interpreter Holly Popa Khader of New London chat during the  potluck thank you dinner at St. David's Episcopal Church in Gales Ferry Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016. The dinner was for Syrian refugees now living in the area gather with sponsors, translators and volunteers.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
(Clockwise from lower right) Volunteer interpreter Yomen Arnaout, her sister, Zin Arnaout, and mother, Manar Faraj, all of Mystic, Syrian refugees Darin Hamou of Lyme and Fidan Mahmoud of Ledyard and volunteer interpreter Holly Popa Khader of New London chat during the potluck thank you dinner at St. David's Episcopal Church in Gales Ferry Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016. The dinner was for Syrian refugees now living in the area gather with sponsors, translators and volunteers. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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